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The Displaced: Refugee Writers Ariel Dorfman & Viet Thanh Nguyen on Migration, US Wars & Resistance

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As dozens of migrants from Central America remain camped out at the U.S.-Mexico border attempting to seek asylum in the United States, we spend the hour with two of the nation’s most celebrated writers, both refugees themselves. Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1971. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he and his family fled to the United States. He is the author of three books, including “The Sympathizer,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, and he teaches at the University of Southern California. He is also the editor of a new collection titled “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.” We are also joined by the Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman, who has been described as one of the greatest Latin American novelists. Forty-five years ago, he fled Chile after a U.S.-backed coup displaced President Salvador Allende. Dorfman had served as Allende’s cultural adviser from 1970 to 1973. Living in exile, he became one of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s most vocal critics, as well as a celebrated playwright and novelist. Dorfman, who teaches at Duke University, has just published a new novel, “Darwin’s Ghosts,” and a new collection of essays titled “Homeland Security Ate My Speech.” He also contributed an essay to “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 70 migrants from Central America remain camped out at the U.S.-Mexican border attempting to seek asylum in the United States. They were all part of a month-long caravan that brought refugees fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to the U.S. border. Organizers say 158 members of the caravan have already crossed the border, where their asylum requests will be processed. But experts predict most of the asylum applications will be rejected.

President Trump has repeatedly railed against the asylum seekers. In one recent tweet, the president wrote, “Getting more dangerous. 'Caravans' coming.”

The standoff at the U.S. border comes as a new report shows the number of refugees, especially Muslim refugees, has plummeted since President Trump’s election. Between October and the end of March, just 10,500 refugees entered the United States. A year earlier, nearly 40,000 refugees entered during that same period—four times more.

Well, today we spend the hour with two of the nation’s most celebrated writers, both refugees themselves.

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1971. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he and his family fled to the United States. He’s the author of three books, including The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize. He’s also the editor of a new collection titled The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. He teaches at the University of Southern California.

We’re also joined by Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman, who’s been described as one of the greatest Latin American novelists. Forty-five years ago, he fled Chile, after a U.S.-backed coup displaced President Salvador Allende. Dorfman had served as Allende’s cultural adviser from 1970 to 1973. Salvador Allende died in the palace as the Pinochet forces rose to power on that other September 11th, 1973. Living in exile, Ariel Dorfman became one of General Pinochet’s most vocal critics, as well as a celebrated playwright and novelist. Dorfman, who teaches at Duke University, has just published a new novel, Darwin’s Ghost, and a new collection of essays titled Homeland Security Ate My Speech. He also contributed an essay to The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

Viet and Ariel, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! It’s a great honor to have you with us. Viet, let us begin with you. In this era of President Trump, as President Trump and Vice President Pence head to Dallas today to speak at the National Rifle Association, and this caravan that President Trump has railed against has made it to the U.S.-Mexico border, the participants lawfully applying for asylum one by one, your thoughts?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I think they have the right to do that. The United States has been meddling in the southern countries south of the border for a very long time, and would rather think about these people as undocumented immigrants or people who are trying to invade this country, when in fact questions of immigration are totally related to U.S. foreign policy and U.S. drug policy and things like this that the United States would rather disavow. So I think it’s a powerful political protest that’s bringing to visibility the human crises that are taking place around these efforts for people to move.

AMY GOODMAN: In your book The Displaced, you write in the introduction, “I was once a refugee, although no one would mistake me for being a refugee now. Because of this, I insist on being called a refugee, since the temptation to pretend that I am not a refugee is strong.” Talk about this.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I think this is a country that values immigrants. Even people who don’t like immigrants like the idea of immigrants wanting to come to this country, because it affirms how great this country is supposed to be, the narrative of the American dream. Refugees are a very different problem, if you want to call them that. They’re unwanted where they come from. They’re unwanted where they come to. And they don’t fit into the narrative of the American dream. Those refugees who actually make it here to this country and become successful, I think, find it easier to call themselves immigrants, because when you introduce yourself as a refugee at a cocktail party, it really kills the conversation. If you call yourself an immigrant, then people want to know about your American dream story. But refugees bring up these ideas of migrants at the border, of people on boats, and many Americans just do not relate to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your own refugee story.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I was born in Vietnam in 1971. And in 1975, when Vietnam fell, or was liberated, depending on your point of view, my family became refugees. And my memories really start after we make it to the United States and we were put in one of four refugee camps in this country. In our case, it was Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. And my memories begin with being taken away from my parents. So, in order to leave the camp, you had to have a sponsor. One sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10-year-old brother, one sponsor took 4-year-old me. And so, that’s why I still think of myself as a refugee, because that experience has been branded on me.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does that affect your life here in the United States, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a professor at University of Southern California, chair of—what’s the name of the department?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I’m the Aerol Arnold chair of English, which does not mean I’m the actual chair of the department, thank God. But, well, I mean, how it’s affected me has been that I refuse to call myself an immigrant. I’m often called an immigrant writer. My books are called—you know, The Sympathizer was called an immigrant novel, and I said, “That’s absolutely wrong.” I’m a refugee. This is a refugee novel, a war novel. And I insist on that, because I think it’s so important for people who are—who have been refugees to assert these kinds of identities, so we can continue to talk about the difference between refugees and immigrants, and the necessity to empathize with refugees, which is, I think, very important for both former refugees and writers to do.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about refugees so often being the victims of U.S. policy, foreign policy. So, for example, this caravan of immigrants has—and refugees, has come up from Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador, as well. Talk about that connection to the United States.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, one of the essays in The Displaced is by Reyna Grande, who came as an undocumented immigrant. And I wanted her to write so that we could have this conversation about what the difference is between an undocumented immigrant and a refugee. A refugee is an official classification. And the U.N. says there are about 22 million refugees in the world right now, but about 66 million displaced people of various kinds. So when you become officially classified as a refugee, the U.N. says you have certain kinds of rights. So it’s in the interest of the United States not to call certain kinds of people refugees. Now, these people are moving for all kinds of various reasons, but sometimes they’re moving because of wars of certain kinds—drug wars or actual shooting wars and things like that—that the United States has had a role in. And so, to call some of these people refugees is an important political move to illuminate why it is that the United States might have some moral, ethical and political responsibility towards them.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He wrote The Refugees, or edited this book. One of the people who contributed to The Refugees [sic] is our next guest, after break, Ariel Dorfman. The book—oh, the latest book is called The Displaced. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Bang Bang” by Vietnamese musician Thanh Lan. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Before we go to Ariel Dorfman, the best-selling author, playwright, poet, activist, author of Darwin’s Ghosts and Homeland Security Ate My Speech and contributor to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book The Displaced, I have to ask you about that song, “Bang Bang,” which features prominently in your earlier book, The Sympathizer, Viet.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I grew up in this Vietnamese refugee community, and I would often attend Vietnamese weddings. And the Vietnamese people are really into pop music. And, you know, it’s a Western import, but they’ve made it their own. So, there’s been a big French influence in Vietnamese popular music. And I, you know, grew up going to these weddings, where you would always hear Vietnamese, French and English-language pop and rock songs. And “Bang Bang” was one of those. And when I wrote The Sympathizer, I really wanted to incorporate a lot of the music that I heard into the novel.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ariel Dorfman, it was great to see you reading from your new novel last night, Darwin’s Ghosts, and we’ll try to get to that in this hour. But I wanted to talk to you about your essay in Viet’s latest book, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. First tell us your refugee story.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Well, it’s longer and more complicated than Viet’s, because it starts, of course, with my grandparents, who had to flee the pogroms of Romania, Russia, and the situation in Russia, so they came to Argentina. Then my dad had to leave, because the military were persecuting him in 1944, to the United States. I had to follow him. Then McCarthy began to persecute my dad here in the United States in 1954. Then we went to Chile. I thought I would be there forever. In Chile, there was a coup. I had to leave Chile for Europe. Then I wandered around the world and ended up in the States. And one of the things that traumatizes me now, sincerely, Amy, is that I thought that, in some sense, this couldn’t happen again, and I find it happening all over again in some very strange authoritarian way. So, I have been a refugee several times over. I personally prefer, because I’m so elitist at times, the term “exile,” because I think it also speaks to the fact that not everybody in the world is a refugee, but everybody is in exile from someplace, everybody is distanced from someplace. So I sort of emphasize that a lot. But I feel an enormous sympathy for those who have lost everything and who move across these borders.

Now, in that essay that I contributed there, I take a sort of tongue-in-cheek thing about Trump’s wall, saying, “You’ll build your wall”—or, I say, of course, he’s not going to build, he can’t possibly build it—”but we’re already here.” And I use it through Latin American food, saying the food is in supermarkets, it’s everywhere. And there’s only one place in the world where every Latin American food can be found in one place, and that’s the United States. So, instead of celebrating the fact that this country—you know, if you go to São Paulo, Santiago de Chile or Mexico City, you can’t find Brazilian food next to Colombian food next to food from El Salvador. But in the United States, you can do that. So it turns out that this is an enormous strength and wonder of the country. So, Trump can eat his tacos, you know, all he wants, but the fact is, we’re already here. And I like the idea of smuggling ourselves across the border, which, by the way, of course, is a border which was created by a U.S. invasion of Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe a way to convince President Trump to try to stop his efforts at building this wall is to say, “You’re going to be keeping all these refugees in.”

ARIEL DORFMAN: Well, no, I think that it’s more—you know, you spoke about Darwin’s Ghosts, and one of the things that I’m really very interested in is—this is my novel, right?—is finding a way in which you can take voices of those who have—of those countries that have been invaded by the U.S. and by the Western powers. If you think about the last 500 years, since 1492, basically, but before that, there’s an expansion of the West into every, every, every country in the world—in Asia, Africa, in Latin America, including, of course, Vietnam, right? And when you think of the fact that many of the people from those countries are the ones who come here to this country, because of its attraction—right?—economic and freedoms, in a way, what is happening is, we have to think of how do those voices, those lives, those dreams come back to haunt us. And as a writer, what I like is to take those voices, that are not voiceless—they speak very strongly—the faces of those people, and bring them into the country and put them inside our own dreams and find out what happens. It’s as if—it’s as if the fabulous of Latin America, which I speak of magical realism, things like that, all of a sudden surfaces inside an American kid.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does that relate to your novel Darwin’s Ghosts?

ARIEL DORFMAN: Well, I mean, in Darwin’s Ghosts, a 14-year-old kid wakes up one morning. He goes down to celebrate his birthday, September 11, 1981, and they take a photograph of him, a Polaroid. His dad works at the Polaroid factory. And instead of his face being there in the photograph, the face of a native of some sort from across some part of the Third World—we don’t know where—is plastered onto that face. And from that moment onward, he is haunted by that face, but not haunted only in the sense—

AMY GOODMAN: And each time they take his picture that day, that face.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Each time—each time, from that day, that face appears over and over and over again. So you can say that, in a sense, the past—and some terrible crime has been committed against the man who is in that photograph, that so-called savage. He takes over the life and the face and the identity, and forces this young, typical American kid to face what his own country has been doing in these countries. In a sense, it’s almost as if I had taken that whole “Third World” and all of a sudden thrust it straight into the mirror of American life, and taken American innocence and saying, “No, you can’t be that innocent. You’re going to have to face what was done in your name a hundred years ago,” and done in France, done in Berlin. And it’s all related to human zoos, which is another topic which is very central to the story.


ARIEL DORFMAN: So, you know, in the 19th century, as colonialism rose all over the world, and Europe expanded, very, very drastically, not everybody could go and visit these countries and see these exotic “savages,” these natives.

AMY GOODMAN: People who are listening on the radio can’t see that you’re using air quotes.

ARIEL DORFMAN: I’m sorry, I can’t do my quotation marks about “savages,” right? I mean, but they were called savages as such, right? And they’re exotic. They’re strange. They’re creatures from who-knows-where—from Thailand, from Patagonia, from Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, when we were together last night at Barnes & Noble, just down the street is the Museum of Natural History, where—

ARIEL DORFMAN:Right, they have dioramas.

AMY GOODMAN: —they displayed Inuits.


AMY GOODMAN: Live people.



ARIEL DORFMAN: Right. But this was—these were human zoos. These people were kidnapped from their native lands in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia, and even the American Prairie Indians were brought. And they were displayed in zoos, and millions of people, as if in reality shows, would go there. They would throw bananas at them. They would speak about them. And many of them, in fact, were subjected, especially in the case of Patagonians, to experiments by scientists, who were trying to find the missing link in the Darwinian chain of evolution, thinking that these were an inferior form, a dehumanized form of—a dehumanized form of humanity—right?—that they were lower forms of humanity.

So, the idea behind this is, we are going to find out that one of those photographs, the man whose photograph is being plastered on the face of this young American kid, in fact, was a captive in a human zoo in Europe. And the ancestors of this typical American kid, one group from France and one group from Germany, have directly to do with the capture and the photography of that subject. So, it’s the coming to life of that man.

And what do we do with the past? What do we do with those people who have been hurt by our ancestors? How do we deal with that? And, of course, behind that is the whole idea that I have about America, America being innocent about its past. I think that until we—until Americans deal—and I feel myself an American in that sense, very proudly so, as a Chilean American, Argentine American—I feel I’m a Vietnamese American, I feel these are all the possibilities. Until we deal with what the country has done, we will not be able to go into a truly perfect union, because we’re denying and erasing the past. And I think Trump is the incarnation—really, incarnation—and the excrement of that denial of the past.

So, my novel, in this case, very specifically, is trying to take the most innocent kid you can imagine, who everybody can identify, every—most Americans can identify, and saying, here comes this captive, somebody who was taken across a border against his will, like slaves have—right?—and so others have, or like Viet himself—he didn’t want to come here necessarily, he was just brought here, right?—and force us to look into what that life means, and also ask how we can forgive ourselves and forgive the past, because I don’t think that it’s a question always of revenge and of anger. There’s a gentleness that we have to find in our relationship. Those people who are coming across the border, supposedly invading us, are the result of multiple invasions of their lands in the past and of very specific forms of drug wars and wars in their countries right now, which the United States has sponsored.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ariel Dorfman, who knows what U.S. intervention and invasions mean, having been forced out of Chile as a result of the CIA-backed coup, the Nixon-backed, Kissinger-backed coup, that took out the president of Chile in 1973. Ariel Dorfman was cultural adviser to the Chilean President Salvador Allende, who went down and died in the palace in Santiago, September 11, 1973, on the first day of that coup.

Viet, your book, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, your previous books, remarkable. There are so many quotes from your books. You write, “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss—the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us.” And in a previous book, in your book Nothing Ever Dies, you write, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” Explain.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in the 1970s and 1980s in San Jose. And it was clear to me that just because the war was declared over in 1975, it wasn’t really over. These people had lost everything. They lost relatives, property, careers, identities, selves. They felt that they had lost their country. And I grew up surrounded by people who were constantly telling stories filled with anger and sadness and rage and bitterness and melancholy. But for most Americans, when they heard the Vietnamese refugees speak, all the Vietnamese refugees ever said in English was “Thank you for saving us.” And I know that there are Vietnamese refugees who will say in private, “The United States betrayed us,” but they won’t say that in public in English. And so, this was the environment that I grew up in.

And I was also someone who was watching all these American movies of the Vietnam War, because I was an American boy. And it was clear in these movies that Hollywood was fighting America’s wars all over again. So the war wasn’t over for Americans either. And I’ve gone around this country, speaking to many kinds of American audiences. I’ve met many Americans of the generation of the war, whether they were soldiers or antiwar protesters or just people observing on TV. And for many of these people, the war remains a defining moment of their generation. And for them, the war hasn’t ended either.

So, a lot of my work is not just about the Vietnam War, but about situating the Vietnam War in a much longer history of warfare, whether it’s from the Vietnamese perspective or from the American perspective, where I see the Vietnam War as just being an episode in a long history of American intervention overseas—Philippines, Korea, Japan, China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. And Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of what’s happening in the Middle East are really extensions of these policies.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about immigrants being more reassuring than refugees. And you say, “refugees are the zombies of the world, the undead who rise from dying states to march or swim toward our borders in endless waves. An estimated 60 million such stateless people exist, 1 in every 122 people alive today. If they formed their own country, it would be the world’s 24th largest—bigger than South Africa, Spain, Iraq or Canada.”

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Bigger than France, too, to put it in another perspective. And I call them “the zombies of the world” because I think many people don’t think of refugees as human, and they’re not really oftentimes depicted as human in media reports. Again, we just see images of refugees suffering on boats, dying and so on. And of course it’s important to show these kinds of images in order to elicit pity and sympathy and maybe try to change policy, but it also reinforces this idea that refugees are somehow less than us, when in reality refugees are people who are just like us until these calamitous situations displace them. And Americans, I think, in particular, have a hard time imagining empathy for refugees, because we just can’t imagine that we might be a country that produces refugees—except we have Puerto Rico, except we have Hurricane Katrina. But we isolate those, and we forget about those, and we don’t think of those issues—those people as being refugees.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote an eloquent piece right after Donald Trump was elected president, that went viral. Talk about your concerns at the time, well over a year ago, and what you feel now.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I think that for many people like me, we were stunned and shocked and in a state of crisis, as we tried to figure out what this election of Donald Trump meant. And it was at one time, you know, a call for mobilization and resistance. But, for me, it was also a time to think about what it is that the Trump presidency represents. And, for me, it’s impossible to think about that without thinking about President Obama.

Many people, Americans, are stunned by President Trump, and asking, “How can this happen?” Well, it’s not a surprise. You know, Trump represents American instincts that have been with us since the founding of this country. You know, this is a country founded on slavery and on genocide. That’s a part of the American character. That’s a part of American history. Many of us would want to deny it or forget it. And President Trump brings this to the foreground, because he’s basically the president of a new, emergent kind of white identity politics that’s always been with us, except it never called itself white. It simply called itself American, right?

But President Obama has a role to play in this, because these are the two facets of the American character: Obama and inclusion, on the one hand, Trump and exclusion, on the other. They’ve always been with us. Now, the issue is that if we get wrapped up in a domestic discussion about Obama versus Trump, we forget that President Obama himself also tends to represent some of the worst instincts of the American character overseas, in terms of the continuing exertion of American imperial power. And having a president that is as nice and as articulate and as intelligent as President Obama didn’t really change these kinds of American imperial policies.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, at home, to his own shock, some of his closest immigrant rights allies ended up calling him the “deporter-in-chief.” He deported millions and millions and millions of immigrants to this country.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: President Clinton, President Obama, despite their rhetoric and despite their praise of certain kinds of inclusionary attitudes towards refugees and immigrants and minorities and women and so on, yes, they were responsible for various kinds of policies that had negative impacts on minority populations and on immigrant and refugee populations. And those of us who consider ourselves to be progressives and on the side of greater social equality, greater inclusion, really have to hold everyone responsible, regardless of their party affiliations.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ariel Dorfman, you also wrote a piece after Donald Trump was elected president. “Now, America, You Know How Chileans Felt.” We’re going to talk about that in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Ludwing van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” this one performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We are joined by two remarkable refugees. Ariel Dorfman, best-selling author, playwright, poet, activist, new book is Darwin’s Ghosts, a novel, before that, a book of essays, Homeland Security Ate My Speech: Messages from the End of the World. And we’re joined by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, now has written a book called The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. So, “Ode to Joy” was carefully chosen for you, Ariel.

ARIEL DORFMAN: I know. I was very moved by that. This is the song that we would sing in the streets of Santiago, when we would say, “We dream of a different world.” And people would sing this literally as the tear bombs fell—the gas fell on us, the batons, where they’d beat us up. They put us in jail. They exiled us. They did terrible things to us. And people of Chile—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about that other September 11th, 1973.

ARIEL DORFMAN: No, I’m talking about the fact that during 17 years after September 11th, 1973, very slowly, the Chilean people organized, took over the streets, took over the country, and finally got rid of the dictator in a nonviolent revolution. We defeated Pinochet. Pinochet also defeated us, because the neoliberal policies continued on and on and on and on. And his legacy is always there, so memory is very important to me in that sense, as well. But this is the hymn that people would sing in the streets of Santiago as they were being beaten by the police, saying, “We dream of a world where someday we will all be brothers, we will all be sisters,” right? So it moves me enormously. It took me a while for me not to—not to sort of let tears—I’m very sentimental about these things.

AMY GOODMAN: You have related—after the election of Trump, you related it to the CIA-backed coup that took out the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende back in 1973. Explain.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Right. Well, I mean, what I said in that New York Times piece was, basically, “You know, America, you are now, legitimately, speaking about how the Russians intervened in your elections, right? But it turns out that this is policy of the United States, has been intervening in elections everywhere, including democratic Chile, where they helped to overthrow the government by using some of the exact same tactics, except, of course, there was no social media, right?” But the CIA used very, very similar methods of trying to intervene and to change the way in which people voted, thought, dreamt, worked, acted.

So I’m saying, “You know, America, one of the things that this is a great opportunity for you to ask yourselves—well, you don’t like the Russians intervening in your elections. Maybe it’s time for you to stop intervening in other people’s elections.” And also—I didn’t even mention that there—I mean, you know, Russia was invaded by the United States after the revolution of 1918. U.S. troops were on Russian soil, fighting along with the British, the French, just about everybody else, to try to destroy that revolution, which, in great measure, is one of the reasons why the Russian revolution turned so sanguinary itself—

AMY GOODMAN: Which means?

ARIEL DORFMAN: —as a reaction to that. Meaning—no, meaning there was an enormous amount of repression inside Russia itself in order to save itself from this invasion.

I’m just saying, the important thing is that this intervention of the Russians in the U.S. election should not be only a case of lamentation about, oh, how terrible this is, oh. You know, it doesn’t stop there. You have to look inside the United States and say, “OK, if it’s wrong for the Russians to intervene in the U.S. election”—and it’s certainly wrong—”it’s wrong for any country to intervene in the sovereign affairs of another nation.” We should allow other nations to decide their fate. It’s very, very important for that to happen. Then we should find out what our role, the role of the United States, has been in overthrowing Iran—I mean, everywhere that they’ve intervened. In Iran, they got rid of Mosaddegh. In Guatemala, the get rid of Árbenz, who was a democratically elected president, and it ended up, millions of Mayan Indians being killed. I could go on and on and on, on about this. So, it’s very important that when we look at these situations, we put them in the context of things the United States has done, because it would allow the people of the United States to say, “You know what? We don’t like what is being done to us. We should stop doing it the same.” Going back to my novel, again, if you don’t like an indigenous person taking over your face, you should face the fact of what has been done to indigenous people all over the world in your own name.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ariel Dorfman. His latest book is a novel. It’s called Darwin’s Ghosts. You know, I really do believe that our role as journalists is to go to where the silence is. But, Viet, when we go there, it’s often not silent, it’s very noisy. It’s just that it doesn’t hit the corporate media radar screen. You have often talked about how you don’t like the idea of, as a refugee writer, being called the voice of the voiceless.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Yeah, I think people mean that as a compliment, but it’s not really a compliment. Number one, it’s very inaccurate, as you say, you know? Vietnamese people, for example, if you hang out in any Vietnamese household or restaurant, or go to Vietnam, we’re really, really loud. And those of us who are writers are put in a very—you know, writing about Vietnamese people or any other minority population, are put in a very difficult situation, because, obviously, we just want to be writers, we want to tell our stories, but the media, if we become hot, will cast us as the voice for the voiceless. And I know that there have been voices for the voiceless before me and that there will be voices for the voiceless after me. And all it really means is that the audience just wants to hear one person speak for an entire community. They don’t want to hear the chorus of voices, or the cacophony of voices, as the case might be with Vietnamese people. And true justice, when it comes to speech, would be when we don’t have voiceless people, not when we have more voices for the voiceless. Having more voices for the voiceless is a temporary measure, but achieving situations where everybody has their voice heard would require a radical reorganization of our society.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Viet, you know, one of the things that I’ve always said is, “I’m not the voice of the voiceless. They’re not voiceless. We’re not listening.” We’re just not listening to them.


ARIEL DORFMAN: There are millions of wonderful stories out there. Now, if we’re privileged enough to have a voice of our own, we try to find a way of creating a certain space for those voices—right?—so those voices can be heard. But, you know, basically, we tell love stories, we tell betrayal stories, we tell stories about everyday people, and we hope that some of the voices will seep through. But as activists, all we’re trying to do is create a space where those voices can be heard, because they exist.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: They’re oftentimes in the media of the local communities. There’s like a very vibrant Vietnamese-language press, Vietnamese-language pop culture, which I tried to empathize in The Sympathizer with those songs. And they’ve made their own industries, right? But they’re the—again, corporate America just doesn’t hear in Vietnamese. And it’s very frustrating.

ARIEL DORFMAN: But also they’re exotic.


ARIEL DORFMAN: That whole idea of the exotic, of that they’re different. And so, you know, you go to a Vietnamese restaurant to have Vietnamese food, but you don’t understand that that is related to a whole culture behind that.

AMY GOODMAN: Your life is a lesson to everyone in this country, Viet. I mean, here you are, chair of English, comparative literature, American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. English wasn’t even your first language.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: No, it wasn’t my first language. And I don’t know. I mean, it’s really weird. I don’t know how I learned English. My parents knew some English, but they weren’t going to teach me English. So I just owe thanks to some incredible teachers, when I was 4 or 5 or 6, who taught me English. And I just emerged in English. It’s a troubled relationship, you know, because English, even though not my first language, is basically my native language. And it’s a language in which I understand American history and American culture. It’s a language in which I understand when people say, “Go back to where you came from.” And I can’t go back to where I came from. And I have to use English to fight back. And it’s a powerful tool, but it’s also a sign of my colonization, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, I heard you in conversation at the New York Public Library, Viet, speaking with Arundhati Roy, who was our guest yesterday, the great writer from India. This is the first time the two of you are meeting. This is the first time Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ariel Dorfman are meeting.

ARIEL DORFMAN: The first time I gave him a hug, but we’ve been talking on email back and forth.

AMY GOODMAN: A different kind, those virtual meetings—

ARIEL DORFMAN: Right, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: —that have constituted so much of our lives.

ARIEL DORFMAN: This is a virtuous meeting.

AMY GOODMAN: From virtual to virtuous.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Yes, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: And you, Ariel, contributed an essay in The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, that is Viet’s book.

ARIEL DORFMAN: It’s a wonderful book, the book that he has brought together wonderful voices, really. And some of those voices, I had no idea that had existed even. So that—you know, he did not take the most famous, let’s say, refugees. He took some people who are prominent, and he took others who are very unknown, I think, to the mainstream. And that indicates that what Viet is doing is he’s doing what he says should be done. He’s not just speaking it. You know, it’s not rhetoric on his part.

AMY GOODMAN: From Burma to Syria, from Thailand to Bosnia. Do you each have a question for each other?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, you know, it’s really interesting for me to interview people like Arundhati Roy and then talk to Ariel Dorfman and realize—it’s very inspirational that people have been carrying this on for years and years and years. And last night I asked Arundhati Roy, “Is it exhausting to be a writer who’s constantly engaged and committed?” And she said, “No, it’s exhilarating.” And I thought, “That’s a great answer.” And I want to pose that to you: Do you find it exhausting or exhilarating to be in your situation?

ARIEL DORFMAN: I find it—I find it exhilarating, but I’m a bit tired, I must tell you, because I’m a bit older than Arundhati—I’m considerably older than you are, right?—and I’ve been doing this for a very long time. And I feel that my time has come now to write the novels, especially—I mean, Darwin’s Ghost is a love novel. I’m very interested in love stories now, because I think it’s very important that we understand how that love and a woman—especially I’m interested in empowering women in the stories, right? So, I feel as if that’s my major concern now. Trump has forced me to write about the unique situation of belonging in two cultures, in that sense. But I do find it—I find that it gives me hope. It gives me hope to find a space where the pain that I have endured and that others have endured of my community, which is an enormous community, right? All the refugees of the world, or all the neglect—all the dead of history, I feel as if, are my brothers and sisters in that sense. I feel that to have done that gives a certain meaning to my life, in that sense.

And maybe that can—I can turn that into a question in relation to yourself, because you’re very modest. And I think what’s interesting is how you have turned that English—let me ask you this: How is your English different from the typical American English that we read? I mean, how are you changing the language, the language itself, which is, after all—this is what we live for, right? We live to change that language, to play with it. You’re very playful, which I love, you know? And we already had this conversation when we were editing that book, right? How does what you write change the language? You came here, and the language, in some way, American English, English in general, that global, will never be the same, because of what you’re writing.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I think all immigrants and refugees who come here feel the same—who want to become writers, feel the same dilemma, which is that English—

ARIEL DORFMAN: Not only writers, everybody changes it

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Everybody, everybody.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Right, right, right.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: But, you know, we, as writers, have a different relationship to the language—


VIET THANH NGUYEN: —because we understand that language is—was what is used to exclude us, to demonize us, to prepare us to be killed, and language is a way to humanize us and to resist at the same time. And, for me, I always felt this burden that, as an Asian American, as someone from Asia, I’m not expected to speak English or to speak it well, so there was always a huge opportunity here for me to disprove that and, even more than that, to prove that I could be better at English than people who were born here and who claim American identity. And so, that does lead to a relationship to the language that is playful, because I want to be able to look at the language from the inside as well as the outside, as an alien from the language, and, that way, to maybe possibly do something different with the language that other people who are completely native in it may not see. And so, that’s really what happens in The Sympathizer, for example, where I put the language through its paces and really try to push it to its extremes. But in terms of doing things like writing op-eds for The New York Times or The Washington Post, I think simply being present there in these organs of mainstream mass media, writing in English, is itself, I hope, a kind of statement, especially with a name like mine, which I’ve always refused to change.


VIET THANH NGUYEN: You know, when my parents became citizens, they asked me—and they changed their names. They asked me, “Do you want to change your name?” And I thought—

ARIEL DORFMAN: To Tommy, for instance, right, yeah.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, in my mind it was, “Hmm, Troy?” So you laugh. This is not going to work. And so, for whatever reason, I just resisted. I could not ever change my name, because I think it—that was my psychic connection to Vietnam, but also my statement of defiance, as well.

ARIEL DORFMAN: But do editors ever try to say, “This is too strange”? You’re writing this—because they say that to me all the time. They say, “This is a little bit romantic, Ariel. It’s a little bit exaggerated.” You know, ¡Soy latinoamericano, carajo! I am Latin American, as well. And I want that to invade the language.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue the conversation and post it online at Yes, Viet Thanh Nguyen, for whom English was not his first language, won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Sympathizer. He’s also the author of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. His latest book is called The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. And Ariel Dorfman, his new book, Darwin’s Ghosts, and his essay book, Homeland Security Ate My Speech.

On Saturday, I’ll be speaking in Catonsville, Maryland, at the Catonsville Presbyterian Church on the 50th anniversary of the anniversary of the Catonsville 9 protesting the Vietnam War. Check it out at

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